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Defector At The Movies

Barbenheimer: The Ratto Review

9:20 AM EDT on July 24, 2023

Image by Lauren Theisen

The Barbenheimer phenomenon is almost certainly the most obnoxiously contrived and contrivedly obnoxious show business event since the day Danny Snyder pretended to put his wife in charge of the Washington Commanders. Everyone connected with this cynical combo plate, from filmmakers through actors, reviewers through moviegoers, deserve all the eye, skin, and social diseases one can get from trying to cut in on the latest trend in cultural death. Maybe that's just because your author seems to have other things to do when every movie in the world plays.

But because of an editor who will remain nameless even though it is that bastard Petchesky, Barbenheimer in the theater it had to be, upon which two things became clear.

  1. If you watched Barbie before Oppenheimer as your victimized typist did, you got the order wrong. Barbie is simply a spoiler alert for our post-apocalyptic future, and in that context Oppenheimer merely becomes the turgid tale of a self-absorbed and smug power nerd who didn't make enough bombs to avert the future that included Barbie.
  2. Everybody with an opinion about this hype-powered combo-dirigible has already given it, and the verdict is in—they're both movies. Taken individually, they have that certain indefinable je ne sais blah, but rammed together they are famous for simply making no thematic sense as a pairing, forcing otherwise borderline decent people to compare blancmange and concrete because some death-warrants-with-marketing-degrees decreed it shall be an "event." The wolverines who lunched up this twin monstrosity bought time, space, and bandwidth anywhere that accepted free content or ad money, found that news organizations are desperate to avoid all forms of work, and therefore hook/line/sinkered the whole mess, just to show their bosses they could.

Barbie was, of course, all about the marketing, and in our theater (name withheld to keep the lawyers caged), the number of elderly folks dressed like Barbie and Ken reminded us yet again to see the good side of the planet being baked into oblivion by global warming. Even the restaurant adjacent to our local theater made its workers dress as Barbie characters (not hard, as most of the characters are either Barbie or Ken, and nobody is dressing up like Rhea Perlman) and offered up menu choices like Barbie Malibu (coconut rum infused with bubble gum extract, for the professional diabetic in your life) and Radioactive Deviled Eggs (probably an Oppenheimer reference but one can’t be certain).

The warmup act for Barbie was a couple of preteen girls either employed or dragooned to play a song (electric ukulele, to give you an idea) in a burst of reimagined vaudeville that can best be explained by the deathless phrase, "This is a song we wrote last week, and I think it's the best song we've ever done." That seems a safe enough bet, and the polite army of Barbie impersonators in the audience applauded their courage.

The fact that nobody dressed up as Robert Oppenheimer at Movie Night, or really at any time since 1962, isn't the point. It's that cinematic polar opposites were shotgun-married to fake a weekend outing at the services of the Mattel Corporation and the wheezing movie industry. 

It was a good weekend for box offices, (an estimated $155M for Barbs, $80M for Oppy), but how about the films? Your misshapen stenographer is not a movie critic and would rather become a narcotics informer than begin now, but you're paying for halfwit opinions, so here's another: Meh. Barbie plays out as if it were imagined by Joseph Stalin, Sofia Vergara, Brian Wilson, and a closet of crank-fueled HGTV showrunners, while Oppenheimer plays out as Stalin's breakout solo project. Either way, the villains (Lewis Strauss v. Ryan Gosling-Ken) are the same guy, and the heroes (Ruth Handler vs. Kitty Oppenheimer) aren't on long enough. And like most movies, the universal takeaway here is that the old adage, "Always leave them wanting less," wins again. In this case the "less" in question is about 25 minutes of each, or the time of the average moviehouse nap, which your author successfully executed right about the time Matt Damon shows up as Sympathetic Careerist Colonel Pain In The Ass. No plot points were missed.

Barbie decidedly began as more fun, Oppenheimer profoundly more dismal, and while after a clever run-up (hey, it's Helen Mirren!) Barbie got grimmer as the plot dumbed itself down for the required 10th-grade-level back-end movie lecture, Oppenheimer's lead in soul-crushing moroseness was too much to overcome. Then again, Oppenheimer was supposed to be Lars von Trier–level bleak, so in that way I guess it wins this match that should never have been made.

That's the real takeaway from the two films if, like us, you prefer people make their own judgments about their entertainment and then do the rest of the party the great courtesy of keeping their opinions to themselves. Both movies in their mashup form, after four Empress and tonics, two Angry Orchard ciders, and five or eight glasses of wine, seem to be treatises on America's polarities of institutionalized despair. No, your perturbed reviewer did not order all those himself. This is important for you to know because (a) no single person could drink that much and not breathalyze a night in the can, and (b) to let the kids in Defector Accounting know that they are on the hook for three dinners, six tickets, and all the alcohol. Yep, you sent us to the movies and we made it cost about three bills. Next time, you'll think a little harder about both the financial and psychic cost of such assignments. We could sit through Oppenheimer one more time at home if only to see what we missed during the nap, but Barbie is a one-off, as it was meant to be.

In other words, this entire mudslide of a weekend is now over and never to be referenced again. Even if the studios want to try this gambit again (imagine remakes of La La Land and The Killing Fields played for a film class at Northwestern with students powered by four hours' sleep and three gallons of Fireball), it will be hard to imagine us lurching at this particular hook ever again. After all, once is slightly forced weirdness, but twice is a week's worth of ESPN programming streamed on a perpetual loop, and absolutely nobody needs that. Plus, we intend to beat up the nameless editor who is still that worm Petchesky and abandon him in the New Hampshire woods. Now there's the happy ending we're all looking for.

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